Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Becoming a Flute Player

I was 23 years old and not terribly sure of myself. I had been, perhaps unduly, influenced by the character Luisa in The Fantasticks, who cried out, “Please God, please, don’t let me be normal!” If “normal” meant the life I saw around me as I came of age in the sixties, I knew I wanted something different. But even after four years in college including a semester abroad, I still didn’t know who I was or what I was meant to be doing in the world.
When I was younger, my parents had insisted on my taking piano lessons. I never practiced enough to become skilled. Music did not seem to be a passion for me. Yet somehow, during my 23rd summer, living in California, I acquired a recorder. One night at a party, a fellow I was with wanted me to play certain specific notes to accompany him. Perhaps he played guitar, I don’t recall. I had great difficulty sticking to the exact notes and melody he requested. This upset him enough to say to me: “If you can’t do that, you probably shouldn’t play music at all.”Crushing words that I have never forgotten. Crushing words that might have kept me forever from the joy I now experience as a flute player.  Although flute playing is not my profession, it is a valued and frequently indulged delight!
Playing Native Flute, Italy
The pleasure in playing music has various levels. As I play, I am aware of an amazing flow rushing through me. I become one with that flow. It is a feeling of aliveness and emotion, amovement of vibrating life force. The sounds that emerge are both the cause and effect of that flow. It is an integrated dance of breath, sound and energy. And when I make music with another person, the energy of his or her flow enters into me and weaves with my own to create something entirely new.  It is like making love.
What? You might be wondering, how did that happen? How did I recover from such a devastating put-down to end up where I am now, where making music is like making love?
Apparently something in me just didn’t accept what that fellow had said to me. Instead, and for no conscious reason that I can recall, I walked into a pawn shop a few weeks later and bought a silver flute! Somewhere in me was a knowing and a longing to make music. Despite those hurtful words, despite my disinterest in practicing piano, despite the fact that I cannot easily “carry a tune” and despite the fact that I knew nothing about flutes, I bought one. I didn’t even know if it was in working condition.
Fortunately, I knew a man in Big Sur, where I lived, who played saxophone (mostly) and flute (sometimes) with a band called Big Sur Light & Power. His name was Karl, and it is to him that I owe my transformation from inept and disinterested musician to someone who plays and loves to play the flute. I brought my newly purchased flute to Karl. He told me it needed to be repaired before it could be played. I was disappointed, so he showed me how to blow a couple of notes on HIS flute. Three, to be exact. He taught me to play three notes.
Shortly afterward, I was at a large party atop Partington Ridge, with a vast view, beneath us, of the Pacific Ocean. Karl’s band was playing – mostly him on sax and about ten men on conga drums. There were plenty of women, of course, who were all dancing, swaying to the rhythm of the drums, nearly all dressed in leotard tops and long skirts. Women were not permitted to play drums in Big Sur in those days. Music making was what the guys did. The women danced and cooked, and were often barefoot and pregnant. (Honestly, this was Big Sur in the sixties!)
Rather than joining the women, I sat close to where Karl was playing, hoping he would play his flute. He didn’t, and eventually the band stopped to take a break. The women disappeared to serve food, and other men stepped up to the drums to continue playing, to keep the music alive. As Karl put away his sax, I asked him to play his flute, since I figured I ought to learn what it sounds like. He obliged, for only a few minutes. Then, suddenly, he turned to me with flute outstretched in his hand, saying, OK, it’s your turn now. What??  Me?? I knew how to play THREE notes – and had only played them at his house a few days earlier. Something in me was yearning to reach out and take the flute, and I suppose he saw that, but there was no way I was going to do so in front of all those people. Me? I can’t even carry a tune, or remember a simple melody.
Karl stood resolute, saying to me these exact words: “You’re going to have to start some time, it might as well be now.” He spoke directly to my heart and I heard him. I will forever be grateful to him. Had he not encouraged me in such a straightforward way, I might never have stepped up to play. I took his flute, stood in front of the drummers, and tentatively blew one of the notes he had taught me. The drummers kept playing, as they had been playing throughout our little side conversation. Then I blew the second note, letting my body pick up the rhythm of the drums, feeling it inside me. Finally, the third note. And the drummers kept drumming!
So I began to improvise, first one, than another, and back to the third note, even mixing them up. The drummers kept drumming. For the first time in my life I was making music, and absolutely loving it!
As if that wasn’t enough, another fellow with a flute suddenly appeared. He began to play. He knew a whole lot more than my three notes and together we continued to make music. I couldn’t believe it! I was in heaven. I was so high that I thought I might fall off the mountain.This is a heaven I may never have discovered if not for that transformational push from Karl. I only wish I knew where he is to thank him.

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